SURF has had the pleasure of working with Kiera Dignam, a student on the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in ‘Global Environment, Politics and Society’. Kiera has been on a dissertation placement researching barriers to community owned energy projects in Scotland. SURF introduced Kiera to our members who she surveyed and subsequently interviewed on knowledge of, and participation in, the heat decarbonisation agenda.

The key themes identified as barriers to community-level energy participation are: ‘Funding’, ‘Capacity’, ‘Community Engagement’, ‘Communication’, and ‘Divergence: Urban and Rural Challenges’.

Access to “funding” is an unsurprising barrier, but importantly Kiera identified the inequality of access as organisations working exclusively with deprived communities had the least disposable funds to invest in community-owned energy independently and had thus been the least successful in obtaining funding. A number of participants reported carbon literacy requirements and training required by some funders also put community-based organisations at a disadvantage.

Organisations also reported that while interest in community energy may be high, their capacity to deliver is restricted both by ‘space and time’. Many urban respondents didn’t have access to space to install energy systems, or the time to meet regulatory requirements of installation and were therefore more inclined towards simpler environmental projects. Organisations also now find themselves in the position of having to address the more immediate crisis facing the communities they work within.

Respondents reported increasing challenges in engaging communities with volunteer numbers dropping. This is possibly attributed to post-pandemic fatigue and the increasing responsibilities people are having to handle in their own lives in tandem with the cost-of-living crisis. Interestingly, hypocrisy seen in leadership was attributed as a cause for apathy: community members may need to see renewable energy infrastructure on public buildings.

The elitist language, acronyms and technocratic terminology surrounding energy and climate change exclude many members of the general public from the conversation. Communicating the benefits of community energy as community regeneration and income generation may be better received than as climate action.

Rural respondents reported that high land prices in rural locations often do not align with average income thresholds due to the limited infrastructure and employment opportunities in rural areas compared to the cities. Rural residents were also reported to be more focused on high transport emissions. The transient nature of some dense urban areas was described as a challenge in identifying cohesive communities to take forward a project, aligned with complex ownership patterns.

These are a very brief summary of Kiera’s findings, and you can find a 6-page executive summary of her dissertation on this link. If you would like further details or to discuss the findings with Kiera, please get in touch with Euan Leitch.

We would like to thank SURF’s Members for responding to the survey and those who generously gave their time for Kiera. We would also like to thank Kiera for choosing SURF as her dissertation placement, providing us with a rich piece of research that we can use in our policy advocacy. We are delighted that Kiera has found a position with Changeworks and wish her all the best as she starts her career.